Man in the Middle

Who was the hardest Irishman for this ex-Premier League referee to deal with?

Former top official Howard Webb has given us a run-down on past encounters with Keanes Roy and Robbie, Martin O’Neil and Mick McCarthy.

Soccer - FA Cup - Fifth Round - Arsenal v Liverpool - Emirates Stadium Webb retired last year. EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

AFTER A 25-year career in refereeing which saw him take charge of 500 Premier League and Football League matches as well as the World Cup and Champions League finals, Howard Webb retired from officiating a year ago. 

These days working as a pundit for BT Sport, we caught up with him in London last week to ask about his dealings with Irish players and managers down through the years.  

Which Irishman gave you the most stick?

“Automatically people are going to think Roy Keane. I actually only refereed Roy once in my career as I got into the Premier League in 2003 and didn’t referee Man United until 2005/06. I knew him more as a manager with Sunderland than as a player.

“He was a big presence on the pitch and someone who you were very much aware of.I used to like Roy as a pundit because the referee would make a decision on the pitch during a game and the rest of the panel would be saying the referee has got it totally wrong but Roy would say ‘I think he’s got it right’, then the others would change their mind.”

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On pre-match meetings

“75 minutes before kick-off in a Premier League game, there is a teamsheet exchange. It used to be an hour before. Not all the managers would come in with the team sheet and some would send a first team coach or even the kit man.

“Others would come in and look you in the eye to impose themselves on you at that early stage when they met you to say ‘look, I’m paying you the respect you deserve as the manager but also I want you to know I’m looking you in the eye and want you to do your job properly today’.

Mick McCarthy

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Liverpool v Sunderland - Anfield EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

“Someone like Mick McCarthy would always come in with the teamsheet himself and look you in the eye. He would give a firm handshake and try and impose his personality on you and maybe look for any weakness in the referee at that stage.

“It’s a very psychological game and the most important part of the day for me was when I had that teamsheet exchange.

“I’ve seen some referees standing there holding the teamsheet and shaking because they were nervous that they’ve got to address the two captains, the two managers about the way they want to work. It can cause them to be nervous so it’s important part of the day.”

Martin O’Neill

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Aston Villa - Old Trafford PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

“After the game they’re allowed to come in 30 minutes after the final whistle but not before. And it’s only if they maintain calm. I remember Martin O’Neill came in to see me at Sunderland on Boxing Day a few years ago.

“I gave a penalty to Everton for a foul by Lee Cattermole on Leon Osman. It looked clear to me at the time. On video you can’t see any contact and it looks like he clipped his own heel. In full speed, it looked like a penalty so Martin came in after the game and asked me about this. I said to him what I seen.

He wasn’t very happy so what I said was I’d have a look at it with him on the DVD. We could see there was no contact so I was really, really disappointed about the decision I had made.

“To be fair to Martin by the time he left the room he had ended up counselling me about the fact I made the mistake. He said ‘don’t let it ruin your Christmas, these things happen’.

BRITAIN SOCCER PREMIER LEAGUE AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

“It just shows how positive engagement can be a good thing. As irate as Martin can get that situation turned around and shows some level of the dialogue. Sometimes you can’t have that dialogue because they’re so irate and there’s no point. Sometimes you’ve got to let them vent.”

The Irish players

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Hull City v Sunderland - KC Stadium PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

“You could have some good craic on the pitch with the Irish boys. They were usually good talkers and people who would actually want to enter into a bit of banter with you. People like John O’Shea, Richard Dunne. Good guys to latch onto if you’re having a bad game. They would help you control their team.

“I used to have a bit of conflict with Robbie Keane. He is a good footballer, don’t get me wrong, but don’t ask me why we used to end up clashing a few times on the pitch. He was someone I really liked as a player but the harder I tried to get on with him the harder it was to get on.

Robbie Keane

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - West Ham United v Tottenham Hotspur - Upton Park PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

“There was a game at Chelsea when he was playing for Spurs and he thought there should have been a red card and a penalty. He chased me all the way down the pitch. I seem to have upset many players over the course of time but then by and large they’d shake your hand after the game and be respectful.

“Players don’t hold grudges in my experience. They simply don’t hold a grudge against you if you’ve made a decision. They’re professional and get on with their job next time you see them.”

BT Sport pundit Howard Webb was speaking at the launch of BT Sport’s UEFA Champions League coverage for the 2015/16 season in London. BT Sport is only available to Irish viewers through the Setanta Sports Pack.

The Setanta Sports Pack will broadcast live coverage of all UEFA Champions League matches this season along with being the only place to see Liverpool, Celtic and Spurs in Thursday night’s Europa League. To subscribe visit

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